SABR

Pancho Herrera

This article was written by Jose Ramirez.

Juan Francisco Herrera Villavicencio played three years for the Philadelphia Phillies (1958; 1960-61). Yet that accomplishment just scratches the surface of Herrera as a ballplayer and a man. “Pancho” – or, as he was typically known in Cuba, “Panchón” – was a childhood idol to many who grew up in his homeland. He also played in the Negro, Cuban, and Mexican Leagues, as well as the U.S. minors and winter ball in five other nations.

Let’s begin with an important observation about his nickname. It is true that Pancho (or, as the U.S. papers often wrote, Frank) is the nickname for those named Francisco. However, he was called Panchón for his height and size – 6’3” and 220 pounds. Unfortunately he was also called (behind his back, no doubt) “Ponchón.” That is a play on words for someone who struck out – ponche, in Spanish – a great deal, as the righty did in 24% of his plate appearances with the Phillies.

Many publications, including some of the sources for this biography, show Panchón Herrera’s birthplace as Santiago de Cuba, the largest city and capital of Oriente Province in eastern Cuba (near Guantánamo). Yet according to conversations with Cuban teammates in Philadelphia – Tony Taylor and Tony González – Herrera was born in Santiago de Las Vegas in the Arava Sugar Mill area, not far from Habana. Many other articles during his career also gave this location, including one from January 1961 in Baseball Digest noting that both his father and mother worked in a cigar factory.[1]

Further research underscores that Herrera was in fact born in Santiago de Las Vegas, as Jorge S. Figueredo (author of Who’s Who in Cuban Baseball) corroborated. Figueredo’s family came from that community; his older brother Mario played as a child with Panchón Herrera, since the Figueredos’ paternal grandparents lived around the corner from Herrera’s family. In December 2011, Herrera’s sister Mercedes and niece Agatha also confirmed this point and provided additional family background. Panchón was the first of three children born to Pedro Herrera (1893-1983) and Anselma Villavicencio (1911-1977). His brother Pedro (1936-2006) and sister Mercedes (born 1938) followed. Note the spelling of their mother’s surname, which starts with a V rather than a W as some sources show.

Herrera was born on June 16, 1934, and died in Miami, Florida, on April 15, 2005, where he is buried in Dade Memorial Park South. He was preceded in death by his beloved wife Carmen, also from Santiago de Las Vegas; they had three girls (Irene, Ileana and Iris), all of whom live in the Southern Florida area and have pursued careers in health care.

While his professional baseball career is generally considered to have started in the early ’50s, Panchón was a member of a group of players known as gitanillos – little gypsies – when he was around 15 or 16 years old.[2] The gitanillos were players used by professional baseball teams in Cuba during practices – but once the game started, they had to sit in the bleachers like the other fans. From time to time, these players were used during actual games if a regular player was dropped from the team and the roster was temporarily short. Unfortunately, there are no available records of Herrera playing in a regular game during this period.

As a 16-year-old, the big youth gave boxing a try, winning five of six bouts as a heavyweight by knockout. His mother then saw him get knocked out in his sixth fight and forbade him to box any more. After finishing high school, Herrera then spent a year at Colegio Cacio as a student of agriculture. But farming was not in his future – in 1950, Panchón signed his first professional contract with a rookie traveling team in Cuba.[3] The Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League obtained him in 1952, possibly because of ties with the Cuban club.[4] There he played with the likes of Ernie Banks in 1952, then with Sam Jethroe and fellow Cuban Orestes (Minnie) Miñoso in 1953. He was selected to play in the East-West All-Star Game in 1953, going hitless in his one time at bat. He played with the Monarchs through the ’54 season. His original position – both at home and with Kansas City – was catcher.[5]

The Cuban baseball league generally played its games from late fall through early winter. Panchón broke in the league with the Habana Lions (a.k.a. Rojos or Reds for their team colors) during 1954. His manager was well-known former major-league pitcher Adolfo Luque. Panchón later recalled to Cuban author Roberto González Echevarría that the once-fiery Luque had mellowed into a viejo cascarrabias (cantankerous old man).[6] Herrera played in only 18 games and had a batting average of .182 with no home runs.

Not long after Herrera began his Cuban baseball career, the Philadelphia Phillies signed him – their first black Latino ball player. They assigned Panchón to their Triple A team in Syracuse, where he was hitting very strongly. Yet as author Rick Swaine noted in his book The Integration of Major League Baseball, the Phillies demoted Panchón to Schenectady (Class A) to accompany pitcher Henry Mason. “It seemed that Herrera and Mason had become virtually joined at the hip – forced to move through the Phillies organization in lockstep due to the perceived necessity of keeping black players in pairs for purposes of companionship, traveling arrangements, etc.”[7]

Still, the year 1955 also brought personal happiness, as Herrera married Carmen Calderón from Santiago de Las Vegas on September 22. Another close Cuban friend, big-league catcher Paul Casanova, recalled in December 2011 that Panchón and Carmen were sweethearts from their younger years; a photo of the couple during those days became a valued possession of Casanova’s. At first Carmen wasn’t a baseball fan, though. In fact, she had never seen Herrera play, yet over time she became crazy about baseball.[8] Returning to the Lions for the 1955-56 season, Panchón’s batting average rose to .263 with 6 homers and 39 RBIs.

Herrera returned in 1956 to Schenectady, where he connected for 14 homers and batted .286. Back at home, he was traded to the Cienfuegos Elephants during the winter of 1956-57. The following spring found Panchón playing for the Triple-A Miami Marlins, where he hit 17 homers, had 93 RBIs, and batted .306. One of his teammates was none other than Satchel Paige, with whom he would play the following year as well. In Cuba that winter, Herrera continued to hit well, leading the league in home runs with 9 (tied with Brooks Robinson, Norm Larker, and Daniel Morejón).

In 1958, the Philadelphia team promoted Herrera to their Opening Day roster at the age of 24. One of his teammates was fellow Cuban Humberto “Chico” Fernandez. The original version of Panchón’s Topps baseball card that year (#433) became prized by card collectors, as it was printed in error, showing the name as “Herrer.” The omission of the letter “a” at the end made the error card more valuable than those of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays! In October 2009, one example in near-mint condition sold for $8,365.00.

Herrera appeared in 13 games early in the ’58 season, starting three of them and going hitless in 11 at-bats. The Phillies then sent him back to Miami, where he hit 20 homers, drove in 66, and had an average of .282. The big club recalled him in September, and he got into 16 more games – all at third base – lifting his average to .270. On September 16, he hit his first homer in the majors at Connie Mack Stadium; it came off Bill Henry of the Chicago Cubs and was part of a three-game stretch where he had eight hits in 12 at-bats.

The winter of 1958-59, which Herrera split between Cienfuegos and Habana, was marred by a broken leg suffered while sliding into second base in early December. While he was laid up, Panchón put on a lot of weight; poundage was something he struggled with for much of his pro career.[9] During 1959, he was back at Triple A with Buffalo. He won the Triple Crown and became International League MVP by batting .329 with 37 homers and 128 RBIs. Unfortunately for Panchón, this was the same year the Havana Sugar Kings enthralled Cuba by winning the Little World Series, so his accomplishments did not get as much notice in his native country.

Herrera returned to the Habana Lions for the 1959-60 season, since Cienfuegos had Rogelio (Borrego) Álvarez at first. He led the league in home runs (15) and RBIs (50). Paul Casanova recalled that Panchón bought his first house after receiving $1000 from the Gillette Company (which sponsored sports events in Cuba during that time) after hitting a grand slam.

After his great success at Buffalo, Herrera made it back to the majors in 1960 – but in an odd experiment for a man of Panchón’s height and bulk, Phillies manager Eddie Sawyer converted him to second base. As Herrera sought to learn his new position, he returned to Habana, where an old man in his neighborhood showed him how to pivot, avoid the runner and throw to first.[10] According to Tony Taylor, players expressed concern about sliding for fear of what could happen if Panchón were to fall on them! Gene Mauch, who became manager shortly after Sawyer quit following Opening Day, returned Herrera to first base once the team swung a four-player trade with the Chicago Cubs in May. The deal sent away first baseman Ed Bouchee – who had previously blocked Herrera’s way as “a favored white prospect” in the minors.[11] In return, the Phillies received a natural second baseman in Taylor.

About another month later, the Phillies acquired another Cuban, outfielder Tony González. Panchón finished the season with big-league career highs in homers (17) and RBIs (71). That same year, though, he established a National League record with 136 strikeouts, a figure that looks mild today. He also tied for the NL lead in errors by a first baseman, though he did also lead in assists – authors Larry Moffi and Jonathan Kronstadt wrote, “In addition to awesome power, Herrera offered a great glove and surprising agility for his size.”[12] He made a strong impression overall, finishing second in the Rookie of the Year balloting behind Frank Howard.

Herrera had 10 homers and 41 RBIs during the 1960-61 winter season – the last for professional baseball in Cuba. He finished his career at home with 42 homers, 187 RBIs and a .254 average. A teammate that winter was Luis Tiant, playing his first year as a pro (he was named Rookie of the Year after winning 10 games). Tiant remembered Herrera as someone who treated the rookies well and had a wonderful personality – “He never got upset and did anything for you, never asking for nothing in return.”

Ahead of his second full season in the majors (1961), Panchón and four other Latino players came to the U.S. on visas secured by the Phillies organization. Other beneficiaries included Taylor, Marcelino López (another Cuban), and Dominican pitcher Reynaldo García. Other Cuban players, like Tiant, left the island never to return to play baseball. The political situation in Cuba had changed dramatically and professional baseball was no longer possible. Herrera preferred not to talk about politics with reporters, though – he would say, “Please…we talk about baseball. I am a ballplayer.”[13]

During the ’61 season, Herrera played in 126 games with 13 homers, 51 RBIs and a .258 batting average. He even stole five bases, but was second in the league with 120 strikeouts. His major-league career ended after that season, with 31 homers, 128 RBIs, and a batting average of .271 in 300 games. He never made it back after the Phillies acquired veteran first baseman Roy Sievers, who still had two good seasons left, that November.

Tony Taylor and Paul Casanova recalled those years when there were very few Latin players in the majors. It was not unusual for those men – regardless of their team – to get together after games at somebody’s house to enjoy each other’s company, play dominoes, and listen to music. Tony González remembers that Herrera once struck out multiple times against San Francisco ace Juan Marichal, and yelled at the hurler, “¡Afloja!” (“Slow it down!”) – which of course didn’t happen. Marichal simply yelled back that he had better show up at the house afterwards.

Panchón returned to Buffalo in 1962, distinguishing himself by once again leading the International League in home runs (32) and RBIs (108; tied with Bob Bailey). That November, the Phillies sent him to the Pittsburgh Pirates with Ted Savage for Don Hoak. Donn Clendenon became entrenched as the Pirates’ regular first baseman, and so Herrera played three full years with Pittsburgh’s Triple-A affiliate, the Columbus Jets. He led the IL for a third time in homers in 1965 with 21. He played most of 1966 with Syracuse, the top farm club of the Detroit Tigers. In 1967, however, he was demoted to Double A after he was dealt to the Chicago White Sox organization. After 22 games, he went to Reynosa of the Mexican League, where he hit .262-8-30 in 69 more games.

Herrera spent the summers of 1968 and 1969 with Ciudad del Carmen in the Mexican Southeast League. He led that circuit in 1969 with 39 homers and 106 RBIs. Over 40 years later, local fans still viewed him as the greatest slugger the Camaroneros (Shrimpers) ever had.[14] In both of those years, he joined the Miami Marlins (a Class A club in the Baltimore Orioles chain) after his Mexican season ended. Like many Cuban émigrés, he made his home in Miami.

Although 1969 was his last full season, Herrera took the field occasionally in Mexico for Saltillo (.291-3-12 in 32 games in 1970) and Tampico (1974), where he went 5 for 15 in six final playing appearances at the age of 40. He was a player-manager for Ciudad del Carmen in 1969, the Key West Conchs of the Florida State League (Class A) in 1972, and Tampico. When the Conchs’ pitching staff was shorthanded, he even made a couple of appearances on the mound.[15]

It’s also worth noting that Herrera’s winter-ball career continued after the Cuban League ceased to operate. In 1961-62, he went to Nicaragua to play for Cinco Estrellas. The next year, he was briefly in Venezuela (with Valencia), before going to Panama (Chiriquí-Bocas), where he helped the host nation win the Inter-American Series in 1963. After that, he played in the Dominican Republic (1964-65; Aguilas Cibaeñas) and Puerto Rico (1965-66; Caguas Criollos).[16]

For many years, Herrera was an employee of CAC-Ramsay Health Plans in Florida.[17] As late as 1996, Panchón appeared in a Cuban Legends Game at Miami’s Joe Robbie Stadium, an exhibition before the Florida Marlins played the Los Angeles Dodgers.[18] As of 1999, Herrera was working as a purser for United Airlines. Family members were still living in Santiago de las Vegas. He got to go back home when the Baltimore Orioles visited Cuba for an exhibition game at Gran Stadium de La Habana in El Cerro.[19] Less than a year before his death, Panchón was back in Mexico as batting instructor for Saltillo.[20]

Panchón Herrera was inducted into the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame (in Miami) in 1997 and the International League Hall of Fame in 2008. Yet his greater legacy may be best summarized by his fellow players as they spoke of the love and respect they had for him. Luis Tiant also spoke of Herrera as if he were “a brother” and “a man of great character.” This sentiment was echoed by Tony González. Tony Taylor referred to him as a man who was never jealous, would never say a negative word of anyone, and never lied. He too said that Herrera “was more than a friend, he was a brother.”

In fact, Taylor and Herrera would speak every morning at 9 AM during Panchón’s later years. On April 15, 2005, Taylor got no answer and called Paul Casanova to find out what he knew. Casanova, who also worked with Herrera at a local baseball academy, called the police and they found Panchón dead. He had apparently suffered a heart attack while reading the morning paper.[21] When Taylor heard the news, he said he cried like he had never done before in his life. Casanova said, “He was a very sensitive person and was like a father to me” – even though Herrera was just seven years older – and also called him “an angel that God sent to earth.”

Grateful acknowledgment to the following Cuban major leaguers who graciously gave interviews to me: Luis Tiant (September 9, 2011); Tony Taylor (September 15, 2011); Tony González (September 16, 2011); and Paul Casanova (September 16; December 9, 10, and 13, 2011). Paul Casanova also kindly provided contact information for Mercedes Caraballo, sister of Panchón Herrera.

Thanks also to Sra. Caraballo and Agatha Caraballo, who expressed her appreciation to SABR for its commitment to doing the research in order to set the record straight about Herrera’s birthplace and family. They provided information via phone and e-mail, December 13 and 15, 2011.

Additional thanks to my SABR colleagues Jorge Figueredo and Rory Costello for their additional research and assistance as this biography took its final form.

Sources

Bjarkman, Peter C. A History of Cuban Baseball. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.: 2007.

González Echevarría, Roberto. The Pride of Havana. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Figueredo, Jorge S. Who’s Who in Cuban Baseball, 1878-1961. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.: 2003.

Torres, Ángel. La Leyenda del Béisbol Cubano, 1878-1997. Miami, Florida: Review Printers, 1996.

Treto Cisneros, Pedro, editor. Enciclopedia del Béisbol Mexicano. Mexico City, Mexico: Revistas Deportivas, S.A. de C.V.: 11th edition, 2011

www.baseball-reference.com

www.retrosheet.org

www.findagrave.com

www.nlbpa.com

www.pitchblackbaseball.com






[1] Williams, Edgar. “Whiff King Didn’t Strike Out!” Baseball Digest, January 1961: 60.


[2] González Echevarría, Roberto. The Pride of Havana. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999: 307.


[3] Ibid.: 57.


[4] Williams, op. cit.


[5] Ibid., loc. cit. Motley, Bob with Byron Motley. Ruling over Monarchs, Giants & Stars. Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing LLC, 2007: 150.


[6] González Echevarría, op. cit.: 145.


[7] Swaine, Rick. The Integration of Major League Baseball. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2009: 200.


[8] Williams: 62.


[9] Ibid.: 58.


[10] González Echevarría,op. cit: 145.


[11] Swaine: 201.


[12] Moffi, Larry and Jonathan Kronstadt. Crossing the Line: Black Major-Leaguers, 1947-1959. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc: 1994: 187.


[13] Williams: 62.


[14] “‘Panchón’ Herrera el gran ídolo de Carmen.” Comunica Campeche (Campeche, Mexico), November 16, 2010 (http://www.comunicacampeche.com.mx/Php/noticiacomlocal.php?id=67872)


[15] “Puzzle for Pancho.” The Sporting News, July 1, 1972: 40.


[16] Various mentions in The Sporting News.


[17] “CAC-Ramsay Employees Warm Up to Throw Out and Catch the First Ball at JRS for Florida Marlins vs. Chicago Cubs Game.” PRNewswire, May 21, 1993.


[18] Alexander, Rachel. “Cuban Legends Game Digs Up Blasts from Past.” Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, July 24, 1995: 9C.


[19] Adams, David. “U.S., Cuba back to bitter ways after touch of normality.” St. Petersburg Times, April 5, 1999.


[20] “‘Panchón’ Herrera el gran ídolo de Carmen.”


[21] “Glorias del deporte cubano: Juan Francisco (Panchón) Herrera Villavicencio.” Online biographical sketch on Cuba La Isla Infinita website (http://cubalaislainfinita.com/2011/06/16/glorias-del-deporte-cubano-juan...), June 16, 2011.
Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.